Nostalgic Game Design Can't Be Just Skin Deep

Carolyn Petit examines the very different ways in which two games go about celebrating the NES era.

I imagine that when I look back on the games of 2012 in the future, it won't be any of this year's big commercial hits that stand out most. Great as they are, it won't be games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Dishonored that spring to mind first. Rather, what will define 2012 for me most is the fact that not one but two of the most memorable and interesting games I played this year are tremendously referential celebrations of gaming's past.

Of course, games that capitalize on the nostalgia of players who grew up with the games of the '80s and '90s are nothing new. Each entry in Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. series attempts to appeal to those who have fond recollections of the "old" Super Mario Bros. games. And it's not unusual for publishers to resurrect and modernize beloved properties of the past. As a huge fan of Bionic Commando on the NES, I always think of the disappointing 2009 update as an unfortunate example of such games.

At one point, Retro City Rampage references the faux-3D stages in Contra.

But two games released this year--Retro City Rampage and Abobo's Big Adventure--have a different relationship with the past than those other games. These games aren't new entries in old franchises, playing on our fondness for specific characters or worlds, our yearning to play a new game in a series we loved when we were younger. Instead, they reference a wide variety of different NES games, and in doing so, they celebrate the entire NES era. Yet though they share a similar reverence for the past, their approaches are wildly different.

Retro City Rampage takes a type of game that didn't exist in the 1980s--the open-world urban crime adventure--and envisions what it might have looked like if it had. Known early in its development as Grand Theftendo and originally designed to run on actual NES hardware, Retro City Rampage looks and sounds very much like a product of the '80s. If you loved the NES, playing RCR will bring memories flooding back of how it felt to bring a new cartridge home, slam it into the Nintendo, and dive into a new 8-bit world.

It's a heady sensation, with the power of nostalgia making it distinctly different from the contemporary thrill of exploring the lands of Skyrim or the streets of Liberty City. And because games like RCR didn't exist in the '80s, Retro City Rampage initially recaptures the excitement that came with playing something unlike anything you'd ever played before--the first time you played Metroid or Blaster Master or The Legend of Zelda. But eventually, it sinks in that, since we're now in the 2010s and not the 1980s, we have played games that play like Retro City Rampage, and that do what it does better. The visuals and music conjure a pleasing sense of returning to the past, but what it's doing isn't nearly as bold today as what games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda did back then.

Playing RCR will bring memories flooding back of how it felt to bring a new cartridge home, slam it into the Nintendo, and dive into a new 8-bit world.
Retro City Rampage goes beyond its 8-bit visuals and music in attempting to stir up warm, fuzzy feelings for gaming's past, though. It also dishes out references by the dozens to specific games, characters, media personalities, movies, and other pop culture artifacts of the '80s. Some of these nods elicit a pleasing sense of recognition, a simple but satisfying, "Oh, hey, the name of that skate shop is a reference to Skate or Die!" Others may make you chuckle, while some fall flat. But ironically, it's when Retro City Rampage goes beyond textual references and tries to reference classic games via its gameplay that it stumbles the most as a celebration of '80s games.

Games like Paperboy and Tapper, and particular elements of games such as the faux-3D levels in the original Contra, all felt a specific way, and for those of us who played those games when we were younger, the feel of the controls is an intrinsic part of our memories of them. As a result, when playing the sections of Retro City Rampage that are modeled on these games, there's a jarring disconnect between what we see (a room that is clearly modeled on a bar in Tapper, for instance) and what we feel (controls that make no effort to imitate the distinctive way Tapper felt). I know that I enjoyed playing Tapper, but playing the stage that spoofs it in Retro City Rampage doesn't remind me why I enjoyed it.

Retro City Rampage faithfully recreates the look and sound of the games it references, but it goes deeper than that.

Abobo's Big Adventure, on the other hand, duplicates with remarkable precision the way it feels to play the games it imitates. Unlike Retro City Rampage, Abobo's Big Adventure makes no attempt to mix 8-bit visuals and sound with more modern genres or concepts. In fact, nearly every element of Abobo--every character, every environmental detail--is not just a reference to something from gaming's past, but a nearly pixel-perfect re-creation.

Because it's not a commercial product but a free Flash game, Abobo's Big Adventure can get away with replicating the first stage of Double Dragon (complete with its fantastic music), and pitting you against enemies from Super Mario Bros., Renegade, Donkey Kong, Kung Fu, and other games. If you've played Double Dragon, the experience isn't just nostalgic because it looks and sounds like Double Dragon. It's also nostalgic because it feels like Double Dragon. If it didn't, playing this stage would feel just as discordant as it feels to play the Tapper level in Retro City Rampage. But instead, the experience is harmonious, and pleasurable.

Abobo's Big Adventure doesn't just make superficial nods to the games it spoofs. It reminds us why we loved playing them.
What's remarkable about Abobo's Big Adventure is that it takes you back to the sights, sounds, and feelings of classic NES games not just once or twice, but over and over again. There's a level that mimics a fortress in The Legend of Zelda and one that imitates a match in Pro Wrestling. One faithfully re-creates early stages in Contra, and another sees you leaping and shooting through a remake of Mega Man 2's Quick Man stage. Like the Double Dragon stage that opens the game, these aren't dry, unimaginative replicas. They're filled with characters from other games and have frequently hilarious surprises in the forms of unexpected boss fights and other tweaks to these scenarios some of us know only too well. But it always nails the most crucial detail. It always feels right. Retro City Rampage reminds us that we played these classic games. Abobo's Big Adventure reminds us that we loved playing them.

What about players who didn't grow up with NES games? Which game has more to offer players who aren't versed in 8-bit gaming history? By offering a sampler platter of 8-bit gaming experiences that are still fun to this day, Abobo's Big Adventure is ultimately a more varied, better-playing game than Retro City Rampage. The direct comparison is, however, perhaps a bit unfair. One game sets out to be a fun open-world game with visuals and humor that reference the 8-bit era. The other is made almost entirely of actual pieces of 8-bit games--sprites, backgrounds, music, gameplay mechanics. But if we see more games in the future that strive to celebrate NES games to the extent that these two do, I hope that they take a cue from Abobo's Big Adventure, and recognize that it's not the pixelated visuals or chiptune music that makes those games so worthy of our enduring affection. It's the way they play.

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tgwolf
tgwolf

I would have to disagree on the premise that they might actually have some games that were enjoyably nostalgic and yet other-than-impossible to play. 

ggregd
ggregd

I had an NES and clocked many hours in Mario Brothers and Zelda, but never really got into gaming until I had a PC.  Retro gaming for me is X-Wing, Doom, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, Ultima, Silent Service and Lemmings.  I have never been big on twitch gameplay, and that was all consoles seemed to deliver.  However, for some reason I never played a console RPG, which I'm sure I would have loved.

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

I think the beauty of older games was that it challenged you to be creative, the devs and the players.  On the players side, it challenged your imagination.  You don't get that anymore because everything is so lifelike today by comparison.  On the devs side, it was figuring out a way to get what you wanted to do done.  Having to constantly deal with color palette restrictions, cart size restrictions, the amount of things moving on the screen, maximizing the performance of the code, etc.  Now you have an incredible amount of overhead in terms of what systems can do, and you can get away with a lot via sloppy code.  Back then you could get into a heated argument over 1KB of cart space.

 

Let's not leave out creativity in terms of audio.  Now, you just license songs and call it a day.  Very rarely do you get a game where the devs really try to give you something creative, away from licensed songs and generic orchestra.  Back then you really had to be creative with how limited sound tech was at the time.  I'm a chip-tuner(NES chip-tuner to be specific), so I know what its like to work with limitations like that.  Without a special sound chip, you only get 5 sound channels for the NES.  Two square wave channels, a triangle wave channel, a noise channel, and a sound sample channel.  Some games didn't even use the sound sample channel at all(the Mega Man series did not, so that's 4 channels for music... and Mega Man had some of the best tunes in all of the NES library).

 

Of course nobody cared about that stuff at the time, we just enjoyed what we had... but when you look back on the whole thing I think it gives you a whole new appreciation for it.  There's a certain beauty behind the whole thing that I think only people from that era can really understand and appreciate, especially those that have been along for the ride this entire time and are still gamers today. Part of why that stuff sticks with us is that that's what we grew up with.  We've got fond memories of growing up with those games. 

 

Some people just flat out refuse to play the new games.  My father won't touch anything new, but put him in-front of an NES with Mario or Punch-Out or something and he'll gladly play.  I still play NES/SNES games to this day on portable systems while on commute or lunch break or whatever, but I'll admit that I'd rather play newer games at home.  I just started Lufia 2 again earlier this week.

Poodger
Poodger

The entire design philosophy behind games was different back then. That is why certain games from the past resonate more with people than some games today. You can't just make a game that looks like it came from the 90's and expect it to feel the same way if it was designed with a modern mentality.

Userfrigginname
Userfrigginname

Wow, they really are running out of ideas. Now they're making blatant ripoffs of games that are 30 years old? Geez, come up with something new and original already. I'd just go back and play those games if I wanted to feel nostalgic.

Falconoffury
Falconoffury

XCOM: Enemy Unknown can be considered a game that celebrates gaming's past as well. It celebrates XCOM: UFO Defense, which came out in 1994.

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

"it won't be games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Dishonored that spring to mind first"

 

Because they are instantly forgettable console shite.

super_voltron
super_voltron

One thing i love about new retro style games is the fact tme that they manage to maintain the retro feel but also had new gameplay mechanics.  The scott pilgrim game is good example,  it feels like a classic arcade beat em up but also hads combos and special attacks that didnt appear until later on.  Another good example of this is Double dragon neon, retro style game but they add funny dialog via voice overs.  There some retro elements that i would like to see changed in current games, King of fighters 13 had some entertaining pre battle dialog but the story "clips" of still images with text felt pretty dull I think animated clips would have been better. the prebattle dialog was cool though very classic and entertaining they dont need to change that.  Mortal Kombat is a good example of an improvements to a story mode.  So yeah there are good things about retro and bad things, damn this comment is all over the place heh heh I guessb i need a break to clear my head time to play some video games...some retro games.

super_voltron
super_voltron

I remember when they used to go on about bringing back 2-d or some other old style, but when you really think about it. They never stopped making games like those.   Every console has had at least a few cartoony 2-d retro style games.  There are elements of retro style gamming that we haven't seen for a while and I would love to see again.  The most fun ive had with retro games in the past was stopping at some random truck stop on a road trip and finding some bzare japanese import style game, that tends to be really quirky and entertaining. Finding games like those are the best kind of nostalgic feeling

DEagle267
DEagle267

Another fun flash one is Super Mario Bros. Crossover. It's just what it's titled, SMB1 but with multiple playable characters from other NES titles as well as options to change audio/visuals to NES/SNES/Gameboy styles. (I like Link & Ryu the best) If anyone wants to check it out, http://www.explodingrabbit.com/games/super-mario-bros-crossover

wasakawaka
wasakawaka

I've got retro city for the vita, it's a good bargain for 15 bucks and it makes me laugh.

JKnaperek
JKnaperek

Carolyn always gets to write on the best games! 

Steba93
Steba93

I really liked it when these 8 and 16 bit game styles came back, really retro and nostalgic feeling. But as technology progresses, some nice ideas and 8 bit graphics just aren't that "neat idea" anymore, it's just copying what others do, and that'ts try to ride the nostalgia train to fame. I think graphics need to get better, games need to evolve, not devolve. I love 16 bit style, SNES games like Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid really are one of the best looking games ever, but games need to grow, be allowed to be more beautiful. And retro graphics don't give anything new gameplay wise, it's just nostalgia value, but on the other hand better graphics can give it more gameplay value if they implement it right.

One of the recent games has really evolved in both graphic and gameplay wise, Mark of the Ninja. Bought it for PC and I love it. It has this little retro feel to it, but it really is a new game, it has evolved from those standard retro 8 bit games that Xbox Live and other places seem to be just full of. It stands out. Better graphics allow more visual aids to the gameplay, like in MotN your footsteps and other noises you or others make are shown as this ring around the noise maker, bigger the ring bigger the noise. Graphics allow better lighting which is really important for a stealth game, it creates mood and gives it style and gives visual help on how well you're hidden, when you're in cover you're almost invisible, when you're in darkness you're black and white, when in light you're shown in color.

Bottom line: games need to evolve. Retro era has passed and it's getting old, just like millions of shooters coming out because it seems like an easy way to cash up. Retro style is starting to become just like a pointless gimmick like Xbox Kinect kinda is, devs, don't make it that way. If you make retro style, make it actually amount to something.

franzito
franzito

I never had a NES but I truly deeply respect that era. We have some graphically nostalgic games today, with fair to good plots popping out, but I have to admit 3D and HD graphics kick ass and they're far more attractive! I can stand a Genesis or SNES graphics these days coz they instantly pull you back to the glorious 16 bits past, as I can do the same for PSX games (despite their aliasing). But 8 bits graphic today feel like playing in a low res cell phone...

maxwell97
maxwell97

I kind of hope this 8-bit nostalgia thing dies out soon. The NES was a powerful system for its day, but 2d sprite-based graphics matured in the 16-bit era, by which I mean the hardware became capable of doing what the designers really wanted it to. Making a "16-bit" game today would be a valid stylistic choice, if it takes advantage of the hand-drawn nature of the backgrounds and sprites to create something that actually looks good, and different from today's polygons. Making an "8-bit" game has no advantage except nostalgia; "16-bit" does the same thing better. It's like making a "retro" game that emulates the look and feel of early PS1 games - why make a 3d game with low poly counts and terrible textures?

5SI-GonePostal
5SI-GonePostal

Great article but i will have to stand my ground and say nostalgia is good but sometimes it just needs to stay in the past, i have bought so many classic collections for the new console and very quickly realised why we dont still have "8-bit" games, and its apart from a very select few, they are i will be quite frank - rubbish.  I had Golden Axe (yes i know is not 8-bit, but the point is still valid ;) ) for example the 1st time round, i loved it, would play it for hours with my friends.  Grabbed the Megadrive classice collection for the Xbox 360.  Fired up Golden Axe................you know what i really shouldnt have done as I turned it off after 10minutes.  Now maybe my gaming needs have matured shall we say in a little under 30 years, but i think the fact still stands some times past games should well just be left in the past in case we ruin the memories.  

 

Now it just may be personal preference but these games are for me just a short reminder of times gone by, and i will still be saying that this year belonged to the X Coms, Tourch Light 2s etc, and not the rebirth of 8-bit gaming :)

theKSMM
theKSMM

I actually celebrated the return of 16-bit graphics as a way for smaller developers to make good games without having to spend all their time on art and graphics resources.  An indie shop could focus on making a game fun with attractive, fluid sprites rather than trying to create a realistic 360-degree view of a chapel, for instance.  With the rise of mobile gaming, it seemed that the techniques of old would find a bigger place in our modern game structure.

 

Of course the 16-bit graphics then became the shtick itself and it was only a matter of time before that degenerated to 8-bit.  (I'm sure somebody is going to release a pretty hefty monochrome game one day, just watch.)  I don't mind at all, but if the core gameplay isn't there, then the effort isn't worth the time.  You can't just cash in on nostalgia if the end result is going to ruin people's good memories from that era.

Leboyo56
Leboyo56

Wow, overly nit-picky much. The whole article I was just thinking OH REALLY in my head. I've played both games and have to say that while ABA was still an amazing browser game and one of the best retro-tributes out there, RCR is imo miles better in every way by a long shot, except for the controls part, of course, which is due in part from it not being free obviously. What I loved about RCR though over ABA is that while it doesn't completely emulate each game it references, it makes them more awesome by completely reversing the tables. While ABA is more about different games crossing over into different games, Retro City Rampage is about different games crossing over into one game, itself, and seeing how they would fare in an open-world sandbox setting, which it pulls off remarkably well, no matter how strange the reference is. Heck, my favorite is the one where if you destroy a certain covered-wagon looking vehicle type, a notification appears on the bottom of the screen saying "They died of dysentery!"

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

 @jinzo9988 It's because the americans sucked the life out of it by turning it into a money leeching industry.

itchyflop
itchyflop

 @Falconoffury yeah well said bro its essentially a remake on the better systems if i understand it.

itchyflop
itchyflop

 @PinchySkree haha a pc boy!! star craft 2, wonderful game !! xcom i disagree it could have looked batter i will agree, dishonored i haven't played yet, though from looking at it, it seems pretty deep and diversely different. what would you consider a "memorable game" ?? :) 

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

 @PinchySkree Er... What? Have you played these games? I haven't played the new XCOM, myself, but to call Dishonored "console shite" is something I find rather odd.

theKSMM
theKSMM

 @maxwell97 One of the reasons that the Metal Slug series holds up so well even today is because of the smooth, fluid animation onscreen.  (Plus, it's a legitimately fun game.)  Even the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World game -- which didn't get the best reviews -- essentially nailed the "look" of an era while giving us smooth, cartoon-like character movement.

 

PS -- The PSOne era games are mostly what you get when you buy mobile / cellular phone games these days.  Not to mention the fact that Sony is still selling us PSOne games via the PlayStation Store for $6 to $10 bucks a pop.

RPG_Fan_I_Am
RPG_Fan_I_Am

 @5SI-GonePostal I have to say I think part of the issue is that you played Golden Axe on the 360. If it was a handheld or on the genesis it probably would have been more fun. At least I have this issue. I've played tones of old games on consoles and end up turning them off after like 20 minutes. But I turn them on on my PSP and for some reason the same games can entertain me for a few hours again. I think part of the issue is the games look so horrible on HD tv's. They wasn't designed to be played on them and they look blurry on them.

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

 @Leboyo56 Nitpicky? I think we just have different perspectives on this. To me, references like the Oregon Trail one you describe were vaguely amusing, very superficial references, reminding me, as I said in this piece, that I played the games it references. ABA's approach, on the other hand, reminded me that I *loved* playing the games it references, and that, to me, is a more substantial and valuable kind of homage.

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

 @parrot_of_adun Yeah, epic memorable "multiple playthrough" game with about 8 hours of life, better go through the whole thing again for some minor differences or "you're not completing it" and that doesn't count.

 

About as forgettable as most single player console shite.

maxwell97
maxwell97

@theKSMM That's basically what I'm getting at - why make a game look like Contra when you can make it look like Metal Slug? Actually most 3d cell phone graphics are waaaaay beyond PS1 capabilities. But I'm not saying PS1 games are bad or anything, just that it would be pointless to make a NEW game limited to its capability. RCR is a game that says "let's make a game like Grand Theft Auto, but that looks and plays like an NES game!" That's like saying "let's make a game like Skyrim, but that looks and plays like a PS1 game!" I don't see the purpose.

theKSMM
theKSMM

 @RPG_Fan_I_Am  @5SI-GonePostal I'm in agreement with all of these comments for the most part.  The amazing advances in technology mean that the same games that required the most sophisticated hardware available in 1989 can now be played on a device that fits easily in your pocket.  And perhaps they're better that way.  Golden Axe was never designed to be played at 60 inches, and without some touch-ups, it probably looks horrible that way.  Not to mention that I personally didn't buy an expensive high-end console for playing twenty-year-old games. 

Trenchman
Trenchman

 @RPG_Fan_I_Am  @5SI-GonePostal There is also the question of whether or not you played it with friends.  Part of the fun of older games was playing them with your friends.  I say you should get a few friends together, if you didn't already, get a Genesis and a copy on that if you can for accuracy, and give the game another try.  I never got rid of my old consoles, and every once in a while I have to dig out the NES, Genesis, or even an Atari, and give some older games another go.  In truth, I don't always play them all the way through, usually for at least an hour, but that's mostly due to the fact that I've finished these games already.  If I can find a good game I never played or finished before I can usually play all the way through them.  I guess part of it is the simplicity.  I enjoy newer more complex games, rpgs and whatnot.  But not too many more recent games offer the same simplicity that those older games did, and that's the main thing you can find in these games modeled after 8 and 16 bit games.  Perhaps not a more enjoyable gamed, but one that relies more on quality core mechanics and stage design than the complexity of those mechanics.

Leboyo56
Leboyo56

 @carolynmichelle Sorry if I responded maybe a bit harshly there, I was in a pretty awful mood when I wrote it. And yeah, I guess I can see where you're getting at. Now that I think of it, I remember loving how Super Meat Boy had all of its cameo characters (from 2D games) control like they did in their own game, which it mostly pulled off well. I wasn't raised in what's considered the 'retro' age of gaming, so I really shouldn't have called it nit-picky, or judged it at all, as I'm only now getting around to playing classics like Super Mario World, Contra, original Sonic, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Megaman, Metroid, etc. 

CrashOV
CrashOV

@PinchySkree @itchyflop @Falconoffury But even still, it is a remake of the Enemy Unknown from 1994. also known as UFO Defense. So whether it was a good or bad remake, it celebrated the original game from the past.


So did Flashback. Even though it was a bad remake.

Iridescent406
Iridescent406

 @PinchySkree >Implying that I play nothing but watered down games. I didn't know I was a sheep for picking what I want to play.

Iridescent406
Iridescent406

 @PinchySkree  @rastabj Whoa, I didn't know that I was dealing with someone that was as hardcore as you. If the degrading quality of games is bothering you, why do you still give a shit?

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

 @rastabj  @Iridescent406 It has nothing to do with being "Elitist" It's about wanting decent games made by developers that care, not ones that sell out to publishers and churn out crap like Diablo 3 and this crippled X Com game that could have been so much more. Inexperienced kiddies have no idea how much the gaming industry has degraded when corporate greed set in.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

 @PinchySkree That's not really a point I was addressing, if I'm understanding you. I was comparing the complexity and nature of gameplay to that of Deus Ex, which is generally regarded as something of a PC classic.

 

I suspect our opinions just might overlap on many things. All I'm saying here is that Dishonored is a good PC game at heart, and that nothing about it is really "dumbed down", graphics aside.

PinchySkree
PinchySkree

 @parrot_of_adun No "Console Shite" refers to cashing in from console sales by dumbing a game down to a 6 year old limited platform, not the fact it is released on consoles.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

 @PinchySkree Well first of all, that "8 hour" bit is nonsense (so I suppose you haven't played it then). I just beat the game and steam clocked me in at 24 hours or so.

 

Anyway, if this game is "console shite" then I suspect you feel the same way about, say, the original Deus Ex?

DEagle267
DEagle267

 @Renunciation  @ABEzilla116 Np, I like the fact that all the characters play like they did in their own games and it's not just a few swapped sprites. Plus, depending on which visuals you pick there are different alternate looks availablea well.

bgghgubcjhgknjk
bgghgubcjhgknjk

 @maxwell97  @theKSMM also I'd much rather stand 8-bit and 16-bit graphics over most PS1 games because the PS1 games just look old while the 8-16 bit games are classic and make older gamers look back fondly at the memories and makes newer gamers marvel at what they were able to accomplish back then and how great the games are even now

bgghgubcjhgknjk
bgghgubcjhgknjk

 @maxwell97  @theKSMM Because Contra will always be remembered as a great game while Metal Slug although fun people think needs to be updated to suit modern day audiences, I'm a huge fan of Metal Slug myself but I do think it could do with a new game, while contra is like mega man, they tried upgrading and updating it and it didn't work so they just didn't bother and went back to glorious 8-bit

5SI-GonePostal
5SI-GonePostal

 @theKSMM  @RPG_Fan_I_Am Great comments guys - and i cant disagree with anything of what you have said, and maybe one of the issues is the lack of friends part who want to play these games.  But at the same time some games have just stood up to the test of time better.  I cant wait for them to get some proper emus on my vita, one of the highlights of my PSP was having my old SNES/Megadrive collection on the go, but i still generally only play a select few games as imo they are still valid to this day, my top pick being Flashback.  I can pick this game up, and it still feels as fresh today as it did all those years ago.